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Surprisingly neoliberal: the SNP’s approach to further education

I was scrolling through twitter the other day and I saw this image, tweeted by the Scottish Labour Party:

Labour tweet

I’m never impressed when political parties use social media for point-scoring and slagging each other off. It seems a bit cynical just plucking some convenient statistics out of the air and using them to attack another party. Clearly I wasn’t the only one that felt this way, as the following comments appeared in the thread below:

“Jeezo, relentless positivity :)”

“oh my, now that’s bad spin, that’s very bad spin, that’s embarrassingly bad spin. no wonder U’re numbers are plummeting,”

“it’s so tedious and boring n they don’t get it. 😝”


So yes, maybe this kind of tweet, one that cynically aims to show the SNP’s further education policy in a negative light without offering any kind of positive alternative, deserves simply to be dismissed as such. But there were some comments that actually engaged with the issue as well. These examples give an idea of what was said in defence of the SNP:

“No matter how you dress it up. Cutting unaccredited short courses of <10hrs delivered this success”

“I was so looking forward to my college certified foundation course in practical car scoosher refilling too.”

“it was due to cutting useless fun ‘courses’ like basketweaving to focus on full time useful stuff that get people in work”

“so looking forward to my course in origami however I folded and took a real course in engineering.

OK, so there are a couple of things here. For starters, these commenters are all making the point that while the number of students doing further education (FE) courses has gone down, this is because there are a lot fewer students doing part-time courses and a lot more studying full-time. Which they think is a good thing. They think it’s a good thing because there seems to be a general belief that part-time college courses are a waste of time. I’m not sure where this general belief has come from, but when you say the phrase “part-time college course”, people tend to think of subjects that are more hobby-like than vocational, more about having fun than being of any actual use.

What people seem to have forgotten is that you can do a part-time course in accounting, or engineering, or hairdressing. People who didn’t do well at school the first time around can go back to college and do some Highers in the evenings, to broaden their career options or get access to university. People who have recently been made redundant can retrain and compete in the jobs market and avoid ending up on the scrapheap. Retired people can get the basic computing skills they need to allow them to order their groceries online, and pay their heating bills, and maybe even switch provider if they feel they’re not getting a good deal. Single parents can manage their caring responsibilities but still be on a course that will allow them to progress with their careers when their kids are older.

At least they could. But now, as a result of the SNP’s FE policy, it’s very difficult to study anything part-time these days.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the people who suffer the most from cuts to part-time FE courses are very often people who are already the most vulnerable. Single parents, the elderly, the recently unemployed, people with disabilities, people who can’t progress with their careers unless they re-train – these are the people that benefitted from part-time courses and who are now suffering through their demise. It may be convenient to dismiss part-time college courses as a load of liberal artsy-fartsy nonsense, but to do this is to demonstrate either a considerable amount of ignorance or a lack of compassion, or both. John Field, a leading educational academic and specialist in Adult Learning, has made exactly this point here.

The other thing is the broader, political implication behind the SNP’s current further education strategy. The Developing the Young Workforce policy document, the key driver in FE curriculum planning at the moment, is quite clearly grounded in Human Capital theory. Emerging from a previous government paper written by the prominent businessman Sir Ian Wood (not an education specialist by any means), DYW is aimed directly at 16-19 year-olds and the provision of training programmes to meet the employment needs of industry. Colleges are expected to engage with employers to find out what type of skills they need their employees to have, and amend their programmes accordingly. Employability is the big buzzword and features highly in college outcome agreements and curriculum planning documents.

This view of education is rooted in a belief that people exist to serve economic requirements, and it’s very neoliberal indeed. Education is regarded as a commodity, to be invested in with a view to gaining an economic return – nothing more. Of course it’s a good thing to educate young people so they are able to do a job, but that’s not all education is about. There is more to life than work, and the FE sector has a role in educating people about the other things as well. It also has a responsibility to cater for the needs of older people; you can’t promote lifelong learning and then deny access to it.

In the 2015 general election the SNP placed itself firmly to the left of Labour, advocating an anti-austerity policy and generally championing social equality. This is probably what ensured such a huge success for the SNP in the UK election, and also sets them up nicely for a very comfortable majority in Holyrood later this year. But the same party, which claims to be so concerned with equality, social justice and the rights of minorities, is pursuing an education policy that ignores all of that and is instead transforming colleges into production lines for corporations. This is not the behaviour of a left-leaning party committed to a more egalitarian society.

I suppose it boils down to this: either you believe that people exist for the economy, or you believe that the economy exists for the people. The idea of an economy that exists for the people sounds so much more preferable though, doesn’t it? A society where people’s happiness and well-being is seen as more important than the profits of multinational corporations. Where everybody gets a fair share and working people don’t have to just hope for some kind of trickle-down from the super-rich. A society where we consider moral value as well as monetary value, where quality of life is more important than career management, where, dare I say it, we can choose to do a basketweaving class if we want to…

But the SNP has chosen to pursue an FE policy that does the opposite. Access to education is diminishing for those who already have barriers to learning. And instead, 16-19 year-olds are being channelled through a very narrow curriculum with employability as its main focus, in order to give big businesses the workforce they need to continue to make profits.

So, by all means go ahead and slam Labour down for cynical use of social media, and feel free to belittle the value of part-time courses. But understand that to support the SNP’s current FE policy is to support a neoliberal view of socioeconomics, which benefits corporations and further disadvantages vulnerable people. Is that what the SNP stands for?

If you have been visiting this blog for a while you’ll have noticed the frequency of the posts has diminished greatly. In 2013, when I first started blogging properly, I published 49 posts. In 2014 I only published 18, and this year I’ve only managed 8. The main reason for me devoting less time to the blog is the fact that I’m now spending a lot of time doing other things. My college workload increased significantly with a new job last year, and the EdD course is starting to consume pretty much any other free time I might have when I’m not doing things with my family.

So, this is going to be my last blog post – for a while at least. I could have just left it hanging, intending to come back at some point and get into the swing of regular posts again, but I know that I won’t be able to do that for a while so I feel I should let you know not to expect anything new from me here. Of course, please feel free to add comments to existing posts, and I’ll happily respond. I’ve just had a look back and some of them have led to really rather interesting discussions – not always about what I had thought they would lead to, but I’ve discovered that this is often a good thing. Thanks very much to everyone who has contributed.

In case you’re interested, here are some stats about the blog and its contents, along with a bit of analysis:

In terms of the number of readers, the top 10 posts since the blog started (not counting the home page and the “about the blogger” page) are as follows:

  1. Don’t blame us: the real problem with ELT
  2. Why pre-selected language aims are a waste of time (and what we should be doing instead)
  3. Never mind the Bo**ocks – here’s the TEFL skeptic!
  4. He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!
  5. EFL vs. ESOL: a false dichotomy
  6. There are no bad students (except there are)
  7. “Predomonolingual” classes – the worst of both worlds?
  8. The Matrix exposed (is Demand-High enough?)
  9. The big issues and ELT 1: Globalisation
  10. Concerning Coursebooks

I’m quite pleased that ‘Don’t blame us’ came in at number 1, as it encapsulates many ideas from previous posts in which I ranted about what I feel is wrong with ELT. The posts that came in at numbers 3 and 4 were both written immediately after IATEFL conferences and were about things that had happened there (and both feature Russ Mayne – thanks Russ!), so this might explain how they were popular at the time, though very few people have looked at them since. Number 6 and 7, on the other hand, weren’t read much at the time of posting, but have consistently attracted a trickle of readers ever since. Maybe something about the titles?

While these are the top 10 posts for readers, they’re not necessarily the ones I enjoyed writing the most. I think I enjoyed writing Imagine there’s no levels the best, though Language Selection: an evolution was also a good romp. There are a few really boring posts in here as well of course, but I’m pleased to say that you didn’t seem to like them much either.

The top 10 countries that readers came from were:

  1. UK
  2. USA
  3. Spain
  4. Japan
  5. Germany
  6. France
  7. Italy
  8. Malaysia
  9. Brazil
  10. Canada

I’m a bit surprised at the USA being so high up this list, as I got very few comments or likes from readers based there. Maybe it’s just that there’s a big ESL teaching community out in the States, I don’t know. Otherwise I don’t think this list reveals any big surprises – maybe you disagree…

Another stat that I’ve enjoyed looking at is the list of search terms that people typed in which led them to the blog. Unsurprisingly, the top 10 is mostly made up of my name, the name of the blog, or some variation of the two. But other popular search terms were “Globalisation” at number 2, “Bad students” at number 4, “Demand high ELT” at number 5 and “Preflection”, a word that I thought I had made up, at number 9. There were a few other interesting ones, clearly from people who had no interest in anything on my blog and who stumbled upon it by accident, such as:

  • matrix pod
  • sqa knitting
  • thought bubble
  • kids clothes wash label
  • sqa verifier photography
  • knitting school exams
  • learning to drive properly
  • cost of knitting own jumper
  • I know kung fu

…and these are some questions that people typed in and ended up on my blog:

  • where in bloomfield did Scottish immigrants gather?
  • where to get photocopying in Ulaanbaatar?
  • do you need to pass exams to be a gamekeeper?

These all seem pretty random search terms unless you know the content of all the posts. I’m sure the photocopying situation has improved in Ulaanbaatar since I worked there over 20 years ago, but I do find it kind of funny that only last year somebody felt the need to go online and ask this question.

Unsurprisingly, Twitter was the most popular referrer, with Facebook close behind. Quite a lot of visitors came to this blog via blogs written by other language teaching professionals though, such as Geoff Jordan, the Secret DOS (ah, remember the Secret DOS?), Juergen Kurtz, Scott Thornbury and Mike Griffin. Blogging traffic also went the other way, with visitors from my blog clicking on links to a similar collection of interesting blogs and websites.

For me, being part of this ELT blogging community has been immensely satisfying, and I hope I can manage to stay in touch with the wonderful people I’ve made contact with over the last couple of years. Maybe I’ll manage to get back to writing my own posts in the future. In the meantime, I’ll continue to read with interest what other people are writing. It’s hard to know where change originates, but a lot of what is being written out there suggests there is an appetite for a major transformation in our profession. Geoff Jordan recently asked if we’re on the verge of a paradigm shift in ELT. He concluded that we aren’t, but then maybe for ELT to change the whole world has to change; as educators we have a responsibility in this regard as well.

Performativity: how measurement, evidence-gathering and accountability are wrecking education

I imagine you are familiar with the terms “evidence-based reporting” and “accountability”. Both of these concepts seem perfectly reasonable, don’t they? I mean, the idea of gathering evidence to draw conclusions or learn more about something is fundamental to the scientific method, and holding people to account for their actions is a crucial component of a fair and just society. However, these two concepts have been twisted together to form something different, known as performativity, which is severely damaging our profession. In this post I’ll try to explain what performativity is, and I’ll give some examples of its impact on my own teaching context. As you read, you may want to reflect on the extent to which performativity impacts on your professional practice.

We live in a world where knowledge is regarded as a commodity, a bit like oil. The well-known economist Joseph Stiglitz said, in 1999, ‘Knowledge and information is being produced today like cars and steel were produced a hundred years ago.’ (Stiglitz 1999: 1). This makes educational institutions sound a bit like factories, and to a large extent they are, with governments regarding education as a means of producing individuals with the knowledge and skills to develop their nations’ economies. Investment in education is therefore seen as investment in economic growth, as explained by Little in her definition of Human Capital Theory:

‘…the skills that people acquire are a form of capital, human capital…these are acquired through deliberate investments in education…skills are the capacities that contribute to economic production’ (Little 2003: 438).

The perception of education as a vehicle for economic development has led to governments becoming increasingly interested in educational performance and outputs. Like private companies, they want to know what they’re getting for their money, so they create a framework to evaluate the performance of educational institutions:

‘Now the state is the agent…which…defines the terms in and on which the education service will be evaluated. It defines educational “effectiveness”.’ (Cowen 1997: 67-68).

This evaluation process, according to Cowen, ‘…involves defining and measuring and publicising the “results” of education in quantative [sic] terms.’ (ibid: 68). So we’re talking about measurable criteria such as exam results, student retention, the use of checklists to evaluate teaching “performance”, that sort of thing. Using criteria like this to pass judgement on educational institutions, and individual teachers, is what is known as performativity.

One of the strongest critics of performativity is Stephen Ball, a renowned academic in the field of Education Policy. This paragraph gives you an idea of what he thinks of it:

‘Performativity is a culture or a system of “terror”. It is a regime of   accountability that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of control, attrition and change. The performances of individual subjects or organisations serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of “quality”, or “moments” of promotion or inspection. These performances stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement.’ (Ball 2013: 57).

Basically, performativity reduces teaching to a series of limited, externally imposed, measures, and places judgements accordingly on teachers’ ability to do their jobs. Teaching by numbers, if you like. In order to justify this means of evaluation, governments created what Ball has termed a “discourse of derision” (Ball 1990), described by Forde et al as ‘…the perception that teachers and the teaching profession are unable to deliver the required standards of schooling’ (Forde et al 2006: 25), thereby justifying the need for the state to intervene.

The use of measurable criteria to establish how well a system is working may seem like a reasonable and scientific approach to take. However, the location of power is significant here; the discourse of derision suggests that the criteria used are deliberately designed to make educational professionals look bad. Furthermore, performativity creates a culture within which, according to Forde et al, ‘…we laud that which can be measured and ignore what cannot be measured, even though it might be as important in the educative process.’ (ibid.).

We all know how hard it is to measure learning, and teaching for that matter. Using things like exam results to measure success doesn’t take into account distance travelled, or the number of barriers that students have to overcome in order to pass. Nor does it take into account any cultural or linguistic bias that may lie within the exam. For example, many English language assessments contain references to topics that some cultures are  more familiar with than others, or expect students to perform in a way that comes more naturally to European students than it does to students from, say, China. When evaluating teaching performance, the use of a set of pre-determined criteria skews the focus of the lesson towards the meeting of these criteria, rather than meeting the needs of the students as the lesson progresses (I’ve previously written touched on this issue here).

Focusing on the measurable at the expense of the less measurable also affects the professionalism of teachers. Forde et al describe a 1997 study by Wright and Bottery on teacher trainers’ perceptions of professionalism, which revealed this:

‘…while there was a very strong emphasis on the practical classroom skills, there was very low priority accorded to the wider professional growth of the trainees, or to their understanding of other parts of the educational process.’  (Forde et al 2011: 25).

I imagine that if a similar study was carried out today among teacher trainers on initial training courses in ELT, the results would be similar. Lots of focus is placed on the technical side of things – classroom management, clarification techniques etc, – but there’s very little focus on the wider implications of being a professional educator. Of course, this plays into the hands of employers in both state and private sectors; if teaching is simply a means of implementing a series of skills and techniques which can be acquired in the space of 4 weeks, teaching can be perceived as a fairly low-level job, and teachers themselves are relatively expendable. This helps to explain why English language teachers in many countries are paid so badly.

The other issue of concern is that of accountability. The impact of performativity on teachers, according to Ball, is ‘…a sense of being constantly judged in different ways, by different criteria, through different agents and agencies.’ The system is designed to ‘…make individuals responsible for monitoring and disciplining themselves, to make them responsive and flexible.’ (Ball 2013: 58). Teachers feel conscious of the need to perform according to the various inspection criteria, policies, reports and recommendations that are thrown at them. This starts to take precedence over the more immediate, actual needs of their students, to the point where teachers spend so much time trying to show that they are doing a good job, that they don’t have any time left to actually do a good job. All this evidence-gathering ‘…consumes so much energy that it drastically reduces the energy available for making improvement inputs.’ (Elliot 1996: 15, quoted in Ball 2013: 59-60).

Not that what actually goes on in the classroom counts for much anyway. The “best” teachers are not the ones who actually do a really good job, but those who are able to make it look like they are doing a really good job. This is what Ball calls ‘fabrications’, where individuals or institutions describe, in reports and other texts, the work they do using language that demonstrates that they are meeting performative criteria. What they say they do within these texts becomes more important than what actually happens in practice. Ball puts it this way:

‘Fabrications are versions of an organization (or person) which does not exist – they are not “outside the truth” but neither do they render simply true or direct accounts – they are produced purposefully in order “to be accountable”.      Truthfulness is not the point – the point is their effectiveness.’ (Ball 2003: 224).

So far I’ve been trying to describe performativity and its implications in a very general sense, with occasional references to ELT. Now I want to give some more specific examples of how performativity impacts on my own practice, because I feel that the performative culture I work in, rather than helping to maintain or enhance teaching performance, actually undermines standards. Have a look at these examples and see what you think:

  • Education Scotland, the body that reviews standards in Scotland’s colleges, uses the same criteria to evaluate teaching across all subjects. The criteria, therefore, are either so generic as to be meaningless, allowing for pretty poor standards to be accepted across the board, or they favour some teaching contexts over others. Is this type of value judgement likely to develop us as teachers?
  • The need to generate evidence can be ridiculously time-consuming. Senior managers understand this, but feel they must prioritise evidence-gathering over everything else. It has been suggested to me in the past that I cancel lessons in order to attend pre-inspection meetings. Shouldn’t the students and their learning take precedence over everything else?
  • “Best Practice” is a term that is commonly used when evaluating performance. If one college is doing something that works well for them, other institutions are expected to follow their example. But what if the thing they are doing for their students doesn’t match the needs of my students?
  • One of the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) used to measure the success of our programmes is Retention, or how many students stay on the course until the end. If I want to ensure high retention, I need to recruit students who are unlikely to drop out of the course – this encourages me to prioritise people who are settled in the country, with a steady income and no major distractions that are likely to impact on their studies. But what about people in less stable situations – asylum-seekers (who could be deported at any time), jobseekers (who could get a job at any time, which, perversely, is recorded as a negative outcome), people with health issues, single parents (who are likely to miss classes if their kids get sick) – should they be excluded? If I excluded them, my KPIs would look much better.
  • If I have a student with poor attendance, punctuality, or discipline, I’ll try to identify the root of the problem and see if it can be solved. Sometimes though, for whatever reason, the best course of action may be to withdraw the student from the course. But this would negatively affect KPIs, so I am instead expected to do everything I can to keep the student on the course, no matter how negatively they influence class dynamics, and even if it is not in that student’s best interests.
  • The use of attainment figures as a KPI raises ethical issues when it comes to initial placement. The focus is on ensuring as many students as possible pass the course. So, do I place students in classes where they will be challenged and where there is scope for them to make a lot of progress, or do I place them at a level they can already achieve at, knowing that this will make my KPIs look better?
  • Of course, the other issue about attainment in a performative culture is that teachers are under pressure to pass everybody. When assessing students, I should employ good professional judgement and fail anyone who doesn’t meet the required standard – right? But if I do this it reflects badly on me. A teacher with a less well-developed moral compass might just pass everyone, and as a result they would look like the better teacher.

I’ve tried to demonstrate through the above examples how a performative culture, rather than maintaining or raising standards of education, actually conspires to make the quality of teaching worse. As professionals, we teachers are caught in an impossible paradox. If we do the things that we know to be right (prioritise teaching and learning over everything else, challenge our students, have an inclusive recruitment policy, instil a productive and hard-working class dynamic, use professional knowledge and judgement when assessing students’ performances etc.) it may look like we are doing a bad job. If we “play the game” and focus solely on doing what is required to look good on paper, we could find ourselves doing things that we know to be immoral, unethical or unprofessional.

In Stephen Ball’s article entitled ‘The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity’ (Ball 2003) he argues how performativity isn’t just damaging teaching, it’s damaging teachers as well:

‘The novelty of this epidemic of reform is that it does not simply change what people, as educators, scholars and researchers do, it changes who they are.’ (Ball 2003: 215).

Ball argues that teachers are required to question or contravene the values that were previously fundamental to their professional practice, to such an extent that they no longer know where they stand. I’m not sure if I would go that far myself, but I can see the effects of performativity on my own working environment, and they are not good. As G.E Johnson, a teacher quoted by Ball, puts it:

‘What happened to my creativity? What happened to my professional integrity? What happened to the fun in teaching and learning? What happened?’ (Ball 2013: 59).

It’s not impossible to do a good job within a performative culture, but justifying what you know to be right, when externally-imposed value judgements say otherwise, is a constant battle. And it’s getting harder and harder.


Ball, S. 1990, Politics and Policy Making in Education: Explorations in Policy Sociology, London: Routledge.

Ball, S. 2003, ‘The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity’, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, 215-228.

Ball, S. 2013, The education debate (2nd edition), Bristol: The Policy Press.

Cowen, R. 1997, ‘Autonomy, Citizenship, the Market and Education’, in D. Bridges (ed.), Education, Autonomy and Democratic Citizenship: Philosophy in a Changing World, 61-73, Abingdon: Routledge.

Elliott, J. 1996, ‘Quality assurance, the educational standards debate, and the commodification of educational research’, BERA Annual Conference, University of Lancaster.

Forde, C., McMahon, M., McPhee, A. and Patrick, F. 2011, Professional development, reflection and enquiry, London: Sage.

Little, A. (2003), ‘Motivating learning and the development of human capital’, in Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 33:4, 437-452.

Stiglitz, J. 1999, Public Policy for a Knowledge Economy, available from: [last accessed 01/08/2015].

Concerning coursebooks

Earlier this year there was a bit of a hoo-hah in the ELT blogging world on the topic of coursebooks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Geoff Jordan who started it, claiming that coursebooks, with their atomistic and linear approach to language, fail to take into account the non-linear and disorganised way in which languages are actually learned.

Geoff’s posts inspired other bloggers to get involved in the discussion; Rose Bard and Sandy Millin both came down on the anti-coursebook side, though Sandy still seems a bit unsure about any workable alternative. There was also an entertaining exchange of views on Twitter, in which Hugh Dellar defended the coursebook by arguing that Geoff was oversimplifying the issue, tarring all coursebooks with a big dirty brush and failing to see that some coursebooks are better than others. Further baiting from Geoff led Hugh to write his own post, and then put a presentation up on YouTube which describes how his own series of coursebooks is better than others because it is less PPP-focused and contains items of lexis that you might not find in other coursebooks.

I’ve written about coursebooks on this blog before, with some posts directly criticising them (like this one and this one) and others implicating them in a wider malaise that exists across our profession (like this one and this one), so it’s pretty easy to see what side of this debate I’m on. Don’t get me wrong, Hugh Dellar is a nice bloke and he knows his stuff. He genuinely believes that his books buck the trend and offer something different. I’ve used Outcomes myself, and I can see that, compared with other coursebooks, the choice of lexis is a bit more natural, the topics are a bit less restricted, the language is presented a bit less atomistically. It’s absolutely true that some coursebooks are better than others, and his is probably one of the better ones. But at the end of the day, it’s still a COURSEbook, and this is the biggest problem as far as I’m concerned.

By definition, we are expected to use these books as our course – sure, we may adapt the materials, miss some bits out, or supplement with some other stuff, but fundamentally, a coursebook is designed to be used as the organising principle for our syllabus. The order of information (grammar, vocabulary, topics, pronunciation features, whatever) presented in the coursebook is the order in which we are expected to deliver to the students.

There’s an assumption that a single syllabus, with a predetermined order of language input, can be applied to any teaching and learning environment with equal effect. There’s also, of course, the idea that someone with no knowledge of my teaching context, my students’ needs or other factors influencing the outcomes of the courses I work on, knows better than me about what to teach my students and when. This is an idea that I personally find quite offensive.

So why am I writing this post? I’ve already said what I think about coursebooks many times before, and people like Geoff, Rose and, years earlier, Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, have argued against coursebooks far more effectively than me. And in any case, this most recent online debate blew over ages ago. Well, the reason the whole coursebook thing is on my mind again is that, from next month, all the full-time ESOL courses in my college will use a coursebook. This is not the place to go into detail about the reasons for this decision, but I feel I need to say that I am to a large extent responsible for it happening. This could mean that I am a terrible hypocrite, but it could also mean that I listen to the needs and preferences of my staff and students. I like to think it’s that.

But it does put me in a rather uncomfortable position. I need to be able to support my staff in the use of coursebooks to achieve outcomes that the books don’t directly lead the students towards. They can help to facilitate the achievement of some outcomes, of course, but it’s finding an appropriate role for the books within the context of the curriculum that is going to be the challenge.

I saw @ashowski tweeting about “coursebook literacy” the other night – maybe I need to develop some of that. Any ideas?

Language input through project-based learning (My IATEFL 2015 presentation)

This year I gave a presentation at IATEFL Manchester on the topic of Project-Based Learning. This draws heavily on some of the work my colleagues and I have been doing at West College Scotland in developing our full-time ESOL programmes. If you click on the link below, it should take you to the powerpoint slides that I used at the conference, along with my audio commentary. Please feel free to leave comments.

LI through PBL

He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

So, that’s another IATEFL conference over. Like last year, I saw a lot of things, had some interesting discussions and have come away with a huge amount to think about. I gave a presentation of my own as well, which I’ll post on here soon, but for now I want to write about one thing in particular that has occupied my mind on the journey home.

Russell Mayne and Nicola Prentis gave an interesting presentation entitled “Where are the women in ELT?” According to their research (which, they freely admit, may not follow the most robust methodology) the split between men and women working in the ELT industry is something like 60-40 in favour of women. Yet, when it comes to the “big names” in ELT (writers of influential books, keynote speakers at conferences etc.) the ratio is overwhelmingly biased towards men. They received over 500 responses to the question “Who would you say are the ‘big names’ in ELT”, and, from the responses they received, only one woman made the top 10, and only three made the top 20. In case you missed the talk (and you probably did as it took place in a very small room at the end of the second-last day) here is the top 10 list, according to the responses that Russell and Nicola received:


So, 60% of ELT practitioners are women but only a small minority of these women make it to high-profile, high-status positions. Obviously this is a travesty and something that needs to be addressed. Sadly though, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this statistic. I suspect that if you were to conduct the same kind of research in other professions you would get similar results. Obviously, that doesn’t make it OK, and I do not in any way want to belittle the problem of gender bias in ELT, but I was struck by something else in the top 10 list. As Nicola pointed out, all of the people in the list are “of a certain age”, and have been well-known names in our profession for many years. If Nicola and Russell (or someone who was around at the time) had asked people to name their top EFL names 20 years ago, there’s a good chance that the same names would have cropped up. They have all made significant contributions of course, and I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect to any of them, whatever their gender or age. But the idea that the same small number of people have remained at the “top” of the profession (whatever that means) for such a long time has set me thinking. Here are some questions I am currently mulling over:

  • Why are these guys so well-known? What exactly is it they have done to achieve their high status?
  • Who were the big names in ELT before them?
  • If they have been famous for a long time, that means they became famous when they were relatively young. How come it was possible, say, 20-25 years ago, to become a “big name” in ELT in your 30s, but it seems to be more difficult nowadays?
  • What’s going to happen after they retire?

I think the first question is reasonably straightforward to answer. Apart from Raymond Murphy, whose big books are aimed at students, and Stephen Krashen, who is more of an applied linguist, they wrote books largely for people entering the profession or in the first few years of their careers, and so these books have had a lasting impression on ELT professionals around the world. Even the Murphy grammar books are often used by inexperienced teachers trying to work out what CCQs to ask their students when clarifying grammar. Their work has been inspirational and highly influential for many English language teachers, so it’s understandable that we look up to them for this. Their books and/or ideas also seem to have endured over a long period, so they have a similar level of influence over new teachers today as they did when I was starting out over 20 years ago. Most (though not all) of them have also managed to keep their profile up by continuing to tour the conference circuit, and by updating and revising their previous work.

The second question is not one I can answer with any great authority; if anyone who is even older than me wants to correct what I’m saying I’ll be very grateful. I think though that there were quite a few “method gurus” like Gattegno (Silent Way), Asher (Total Physical Response) and Lozanov (Suggestopedia), who invented their own very prescriptive methods of language teaching. There seemed to be a lot of this in the old days; one person (usually a man) would come up with a method, and would often build a business around it. They sometimes even named it after themselves (e.g. the Berlitz method or the Callan method), and in the more successful cases these individuals were able to make large amounts of money. This concept of a single charismatic leader, with a way of teaching that their “followers” must all use, has always made me think of religious cults.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is a much broader church, which encompasses many of the methods mentioned above. It was within this new construct, which started to take off in the 1980s, that people like Harmer, Ur and (slightly later) Thornbury, Underhill and Scrivener made their names. Rather than promoting their own unique idea, books like Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching (first published 1983) and Richards and Rogers’ Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (first published 1986) offered us an overview of various ideas that could inform teaching practice. Others made their names through books that focused more on a specific aspect of ELT, such as Swan (Practical English Usage), Thornbury (About Language), Ur (Discussions That Work) and Underhill (Sound Foundations). What I’m trying to say is that, unlike their predecessors, these writers didn’t propose their own unique teaching method. They either presented a range of diverse ideas, or their own ideas but within a narrow area. It isn’t really possible to follow their ideas religiously because they don’t propose any particular doctrine (even Dogme is more of an attempt to get back to a purer form of CLT rather than anything particularly new).

Still, these people have managed to achieve very high status in our profession, and are still the people that everyone wants to hear speaking at conferences. Maybe this is simply because they happened to write their books at a time when ELT was quickly becoming a global industry, and therefore an ever-increasing number of people have become interested in their work. And of course, as ELT was expanding, there was a lot of money to be made (by publishers) from the kind of teacher development books that they were writing. Did they just happen to be in the right place at the right time?

It would be wrong to describe our current top TEFL celebrities as “gurus” in the same way that you might describe people like Lozanov, simply because they have never promoted themselves as such. And yet, there is a certain aura about them. It is unusual to see Jeremy Harmer at a conference just hanging about by himself; he is usually surrounded by a group of enthusiastic fans followers disciples groupies teachers, keen to know his opinion on whatever area of ELT they work in. If Scott Thornbury walks into an IATEFL session there’s a palpable frisson of excitement. If Jim Scrivener comes up with a new expression to describe a teaching technique, it will quickly find its way into the vocabularies of English teachers across the world. Of course, they are all good presenters who can command an audience well and make people believe that what they are saying is worth believing in. They don’t try to get us to become their disciples as such, but they have a lot of the key qualities that exist in charismatic leaders, meaning people are often seduced by whatever they say anyway. There’s no doubt that the big names in ELT deserve a huge amount of credit for what they have contributed to our profession. But at the end of the day, they are just men and (occasionally) women. It seems a bit odd that they should be held in such awe. Doesn’t it?

Anyway, the fact that it’s still the same old people at the top of the status tree after all these years does raise some questions. Has nobody else got anything to say? Are they somehow clinging on to their status by touring the circuit and re-hashing their old books? Or, as someone from the floor suggested in Russell and Nicola’s talk, are they merely puppets of the publishing companies, who get wheeled out to promote products that will make these companies even more money?

Whatever the case may be, the big names can’t go on forever. What will happen after they have gone? Sure, there are plenty of younger people in the business with plenty to say and lots of good points to make. Anthony Gaughan, Lindsay Clandfield, Willy Cardoso and Shelley Terrell are names that spring to my mind (only one woman? What does that say about me?). Maybe others spring to yours. However, it seems that writing a book that every English teacher and prospective English teacher will want to read is no longer an option for any would-be TEFL celebrity. The risk-averse publishers would rather produce a new edition of an old book than take a gamble on anyone new. Even coursebooks tend to be written by teams these days rather than individuals. Technology means that anyone can get people to read their ideas through a blog or website, and many people are building names for themselves in this way (Sandy Millin and Lizzie Pinard are good examples of this). The messages that are being conveyed may not be particularly varied or diverse, but the people conveying them are.

It seems unlikely that anyone will ever again achieve the almost God-like status that has been afforded to our current, but ageing, stars. The age of the TEFL messiah seems to be nearing its end. And I should know, I’ve followed a few.

Why pre-selected language aims are a waste of time (and what we should be doing instead)


I like to think I’ve made the case in previous posts that planning lessons which aim to teach individual language items, preselected by the teacher, runs counter to established theories of language acquisition. Just in case that contradicts how you were trained (it probably does), or if you think it’s just me ranting from my own narrow ESOL perspective, here are some quotes from other people to back me up. Let’s start with Jane Willis and her criticism of any lock-step approach to language teaching:

‘Spending twenty minutes on presenting and practising one single structure to perfection is likely to benefit only the very few learners who happen to be ready to use it. Some may know it already and it might be beyond the grasp of the rest. For these students, such practice is largely a waste of time.’ (Willis 1996: 15).

Then there’s the argument that the order in which we teach individual items of language (usually in order of linguistic complexity) doesn’t tie in with the order in which students acquire it:

‘Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the last thirty years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a time…bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those items.’ (Long and Robinson 1998: 16).

And here’s David Nunan making the point that if you teach an item once, and if the students seem able to use it during the lesson (which tends to be regarded as “evidence of learning”), you can’t assume that you have “done” that piece of language:

‘A learner’s mastery of a particular language item is unstable, appearing to increase and decrease at different times during the learning process.’ (Nunan 2001: 192).

Nunan’s comment also suggests that if students are getting an item of language wrong, this doesn’t mean they’re not learning it; they are just going through the process, and this process lasts a lot longer than a single lesson.

This quote from Holliday points out the problem with lessons where the aim, or the agenda, is set by the teacher:

‘…classroom events incorporate not one lesson, but many lessons – one which the teacher plans and administers, and one for each student taking part. The significance of [this] is that the teacher’s and students’ lessons are inevitably different, and are very likely to be in conflict. The students want one thing out of the classroom process, and the teacher something else.’ (Holliday 1994: 143).

Basically, the point I’m making through these quotes (and in previous posts) is that there is nothing to suggest that selecting an item of language in advance, and then setting out to “teach” that item to the students, is an effective way of facilitating language acquisition.

Of course, it’s easy enough to criticise and expose deficiencies, but what’s the alternative? Well, if we follow some of the points made by those esteemed applied linguists and ELT professionals mentioned above, we need to be designing lessons according to the following guiding principles:

·       Students acquire language when they are ready to acquire it, not when the teacher decides to teach it.

·       Students need to engage with language within a meaningful context.

·       Different students will learn different language within the same lesson, and need to be given space to do this.

·       Students need multiple opportunities to use language items over a period of time before they can realistically be expected to fully acquire it.

·       Any overt language focus and clarification is more likely to be effective if it ties in with each student’s own “learning agenda”.

OK, so how can we design lessons that follow these principles? Well, for a start we need to give the students a lot more freedom to get what they are ready to get out of the lesson. This implies doing away with pre-selected language aims altogether. But that doesn’t mean our lessons should become aimless – far from it. Lessons can aim towards the achievement of tasks – not tasks like “find out how often your partner goes to the cinema”, but proper, real-world tasks that allow learners to be exposed to authentic language and then to engage and interact with it. The learners need to be given a space, an opportunity, to interact with language in a meaningful way and then acquire whatever language they are ready to acquire while these interactions are taking place.

One way that I’m trying to do this with my students is to set tasks for students that are meaningful to them, and which allow them to interact with language as authentically as possible. While they are doing this I am feeding language to individual students as they need it. After the task has been completed I encourage them to focus on what I call NU language – language that is both New and Useful (I know that sounds cheesy but my students see through the cheesiness and get the point anyway). The students look back at the language they used, or were exposed to, during the task, and record the items that were new to them and which they feel they will be able to use again. They then share what they have recorded and give each other some example situations where they can see themselves using it. Their homework is to go away and put this into practice, and then in a subsequent lesson I follow it up by asking them to tell each other what NU language from the previous week they have been able to use, describing how effective it was in allowing them to perform the tasks they needed to perform.

This is probably not very innovative. I’m sure a lot of people reading this do the same, or something similar. It’s a logical approach to language teaching, particularly (but not exclusively) in an English-speaking country where a huge amount of exposure to English can take place outside the classroom. But it’s good because it follows the guiding principles described above. It actually ties in with SLA theory because it allows learners to dictate what they learn. Rather than pushing them through some controlled activities that require them to use items of language that they’re either not ready to learn, already know or have no need to know, it allows them the freedom to identify the language that is most useful for them, and which they genuinely want to learn. Following on from Holliday’s comment above, this approach gives the students more freedom to follow their own agenda rather than just dancing to my tune. They all have different agendas and they will probably select different language as their NU language, but that’s OK. In fact, that’s the point. Allowing the students to connect the language learning process with what they want to do outside the classroom also helps to develop their motivation, which in turn has a positive impact on their learning (Dornyei and Ushioda 2011).

So, we need to stop planning lessons with aims like “To clarify and practice such and such a grammar item”, or “to introduce and develop students’ ability to use the following lexical items”, or objectives like “students will be able to use such and such a grammar item in the context of so and so.” There’s nothing to suggest that the achievement of aims like this actually leads to any learning taking place.

Instead, we need to shift the aim away from tiny specific language items and onto the tasks themselves. Aims like this:

  • Working in groups, students will plan and organise a trip to a local place of interest of their choice.
  •  Students will create an information leaflet for visitors to the town they live in.
  • Students will organise an event to raise awareness to an issue of local or national interest.
  • Students will identify an area of their health or wellbeing that they want to improve, and work out a plan to do this.
  • Students will research and prepare a presentation comparing two different education systems.

These are all tasks that I’ve set my students recently. Of course, you could argue that these are more outcomes than aims, and that they’re more projects than tasks. Call them what you like, I don’t mind. They’re nice big meaty tasks (or projects, if you prefer) that the students can properly immerse themselves in, with plenty of scope for them to have their own input – in the process and on the final product. Once they are focused on the achievement of this outcome, the linguistic content of the lesson pretty much falls into place; they learn whatever they need to learn in order to achieve the tasks or complete the project. Including frequent reflection tasks to focus the students on NU language ensures that learning takes place, that each student gets to focus on language that they are ready and able to learn, and that this language gets used in authentic and therefore memorable contexts.

It’s not particularly new or fancy, but it is nicely grounded in established SLA theory. Nevertheless, it’s not something you would be likely to learn to do on a teacher training course either. Why is that, do you think?


Dornyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. 2011, Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Holliday, A. 1994, Appropriate Methodology and Social Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. 1998, ‘Focus on form: Theory, research and practice’. In Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. (eds.) Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. 2001, ‘Teaching grammar in context’, in Candlin and Mercer (eds.) English language teaching in its social context (pp. 191-199), London: Routledge.

Willis, J. 1996, A framework for task-based learning, Harlow: Longman.